Real Estate 2005: The 10 Habits of Highly Ineffective Homebuyers

We thought we knew what we were doing. Hah. Now realtors explain everything we did wrong

The 10 Habits of Highly Ineffective Homebuyers

1. Jump in, with no real plan, but with a lease that’s set to expire.

We’d thought about looking in December. But with our lease up in July,
the realtors we contacted told us there was no rush yet; call them back a little closer to spring. And that was fine, because as it turned out, I really did need 12 solid weeks to obsessively check on an hourly basis. Enthusiasm? We had that, being as we were longtime New Yorkers who had recently moved to Philadelphia and realized that no, we don’t have to spend our entire lives in a cramped one-bedroom apartment with a landlord upstairs who screams like a banshee when her kids won’t go to sleep. Assuming we stayed away from the chichi stuff (we’d only been saving for the down payment for a year), we’d have our pick, right? Three bedrooms, outdoor space, original features, a nice bathroom, preferably close to Center City — and all for $250K or less. We hoped. So what if by April we were nowhere? Time — like the interest rates — was on our side.

The realtor says: Steven Savitz, APM Real Estate: “Four months is usually enough time. Six months is fine. A year is too long, unless you’re the type of person who needs to monitor a market like that. I always start looking with someone when they want to start. I mean, I can’t look at a hundred houses with someone who wants to buy something next year. But by the same respect, they’ll buy something eventually.”

2. Make appointments with 10 different realtors; cancel several at the last minute.

That wasn’t the way I wanted it. The way I wanted it was, well, first we’d get dressed up: wool trousers and maybe a cashmere sweater for me; khakis and a pressed shirt for Adam, my husband. And then we’d stop around the corner and have coffee, or maybe a bite to eat, and just, you know, take the time to organize our thoughts and talk about what we were about to see and how it related to Future Plans and Happiness and Children, etc. And when we were together, and prepared, and ready to go, we’d meet up with our realtor, a savvy pro who would actually merit the capital “R” they try to insist on in their titles. She’d greet us warmly and — fully respecting our budget and understanding our needs — would have picked out a few promising properties well before they hit the MLS. We’d visit them in her Mercedes, helpful chitchat and bottled water buoying us between stops. Afterward, she would call, preferably daily, with updates.

The way it happened was that we always seemed to be rolling out of bed and rushing out for a painfully early appointment, half washed, or not at all, and spilling coffee in the car and taking a wrong turn and hitting traffic and looking for a parking spot and starting to bicker and ultimately seeing dumpy, dumpy places in Queen Village or grandly decrepit places in Mount Airy. And getting discouraged and not getting called back when we left messages with the realtor the following week to ask if there was anything better out there. And deciding someone else must have some better listings. And so calling someone else, or maybe three other people, and having hopeful conversations, and going out again. Maybe this time we’d shower first, or try to eat breakfast so we wouldn’t be so highly irritable. But then the first guy, or the third woman, would call back, or e-mail. (Interior photos! Yes!) She had something she wanted to show us. Could we meet tomorrow afternoon? Why yes, yes we could, we’d love to, that would be great. It’s just that there’s this little thing. You see, we already saw that house with someone else because we are bad, bad people.  

The realtor says: Joey Sheehan, Prudential Fox & Roach: “Ten different realtors? That’s every agent’s nightmare. It should be the buyer’s, too, because when they ‘sleep around’ with agents, they get preferential treatment from none of them.”

Jill Rizen, Coldwell Banker Preferred: “My first meeting with a client is an ‘expectation consultation,’ where we talk about price range, neighborhoods, timing, sense of urgency, when do they want to look at houses, what’s the best way to communicate. We may go out and look a few times. But then I spell out the loyalty factor. I explain that this business is 100 percent commission. I will give you all the attention in the world. I will return all calls in 24 hours. In exchange, I ask them to sign a contract with me.”

3. Find a great house, renovated tastefully by hip gay guys, in an up-and-coming neighborhood, with three bedrooms and a patio and original plaster moldings. Don’t buy it.

Pottery Barn light fixtures. New oak floors. Neutral paint colors. Maple cabinets with Corian countertops. A patio with a fig tree. And the major drawback: a giant, walk-in, ceramic-tiled “couple’s” shower (beside, and I weep as I write this, the separate whirlpool bath) that was so large, it cut in half what had been the already small bedroom beside it. Okay, fine, it wasn’t that big of a deal, but we had wanted three bedrooms, not 2.35 bedrooms. But we got over it, and bid. And they said no. And we bid a bit more. And they said yes. But when we showed up at the property the next morning to sign the agreement — whoosh! — in zoomed Buyer No. 2, scowling at us from inside his Saab. It could still be ours, we were told a few hours later, after the Yuppie Jerk had placed his bid. Ours for just $5,000 more. Forget it! we said. We don’t need your stinkin’ top-to-bottom-renovated house! And so what if interest rates have just hit a historic low but are expected to rise? We had a deal! We had a verbal agreement! We had a binding offer! No, we had to get over it.

The realtor says: Lee Greenwood, D. Patrick Welsh Real Estate, LLC: “You always think there will be a better bargain. If you see something you like, I would recommend you take it. But people don’t always want to believe the realtor.”  

Jill Rizen: “Once you walk in a house and say, ‘I see myself here,’ sprint! Don’t even wait until the next day. Make an offer, and not five percent less than asking just because your Uncle Charlie told you that’s what you’re supposed to offer. Base it on the market. Are houses in that neighborhood selling for asking or above?”

Joey Sheehan: “Since verbal agreements aren’t binding in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, I never take anything but signed contracts as confirmation of sale, and I’ll stay up all night to get my hands on them. Some sellers will honor a verbal agreement. Some won’t. Why risk it?”

4. Bid on a house in South Philly where the owners, who show you a photo of their recently deceased 20-something son, tell you they hate to sell the place. Stay by the phone for 48 hours waiting to hear if they decided to sell it to you even though they as much as told you they didn’t really want to.

Let’s pause to mention that you can maximize your return on any of these methods for almost succeeding at real estate if you involve your parents at any step of the way. Perhaps your in-laws are visiting from Vermont, so you take them with you to see the pristine three-bedroom, three-bath, with a perfect brick patio. (So what if it’s a little deeper into South Philly than you think it wise to go? It’s relatively cheap.) And since you decide to buy it on the spot, they’re there proudly looking on as you sign the bid. And they’re there, too, patiently sitting around your apartment all weekend long as you wait by the phone for word. At that point, having chewed up most of their visit, you can only help matters by calling your own parents for the 10th time to vent about how on earth could these people not get back to you when you bid over their asking price. Your mother will assist by reminding you that they have a dead son and you should feel sorry for them. But as for your own realtor not calling you back with any updates after 48 hours (oh, did he forget to mention he was going to Miami?), well, that, she’ll say, is just inexcusable. And as you may recall, one of the vice presidents of Century 21 lives down the street from her. Would you like your father to call him? No? But he should know what’s going on down here. We’re going to call him.

The realtor says: Steven Savitz: “You always want to put a time limit on a bid. Twenty-four hours is the norm. The realtor should always respond to you. If they’re not responding to you, they shouldn’t be your agent. If you are a first-time buyer and have made an offer, then it becomes critical I contact you once or twice a day to touch base, because it’s all new, scary and anxious. Even if we’re hearing nothing, I should call you, so at least you’re talking to someone instead of wondering what’s happening.”

5. Pass on the Tudor twin because of the neighbor’s toilets.

Inside: Beauty. Outside: Nice, but next door is a row of pastel-colored toilets-cum-planters, wrought-iron wagon wheels, a vinyl car seat on the porch, an Airstream trailer in the rear drive.

We think about it anyway, contemplating the use of elaborate window treatments and the limits of our tolerance, talking crazy-talk late into the night: It’s renovated, don’t forget. And the street is nice. So the view on one side is bad — that could actually work in our favor. Because no one else will want it because of the neighbor. So we could get a renovated house for the cost of a fixer-upper. Maybe we should bid low. Really low. We’d have to get it for less. Because if we go to resell it, no one will want it because of the neighbor.

I’m rambling in this vein to a co-worker when she interrupts: “Wait. On Allens Lane? Totally renovated? My friends just signed on that house! They love it. It’s great. Hippie freak? Oh no, he’s a famous sculptor. They love him. The toilets are sculpture.”

The realtor says: Joanne Kauffman, Prudential, Fox & Roach: “Are you being too picky? There’s no difference between being picky and being sensible. It’s an emotional decision. If you’re not comfortable, you’re not comfortable. You need to be satisfied.”

6. Hang on way, way too long to a realtor who is clearly blowing you off.

She had a great website. Was quick with the e-mail listings. Seemed energetic, yet reassuring. Perhaps most important, she understood the yearning for what she called “the granny house” — that well-­preserved bargain you presumably obtain when granny checks out. And so, for a while, we went steady, her and us. But then that bid happened, the one where we refused to go up $5,000 more. Her days became full of closings and inspections. She no longer offered to drive. She stopped earnestly checking out the heaters and pipes. She wore sweats. When we liked a bargain property but bemoaned the view of the city maintenance facility directly behind it (barbed wire, garbage trucks), she chirped, “I think it’s nice!” That was hostile, and a hint, but we didn’t catch it. Instead, getting dangerously close to our lease expiration date, we went to Manhattan for the weekend.

Before we left, I heard about the BARGAIN OF THE CENTURY, the ultimate granny house, on a nice, quiet street at a price that seemed too good to believe. And so, desperate to get in there, I called our realtor. No response. No pickup on her cell phone. No clues from the office receptionist as to her whereabouts. In my earlier days, I would have just called the listing agent, and been in there before the next Acela left the station. But we’d been working with our realtor for a few weeks now. I felt we owed her that commission. I believed she’d get back to us and we’d just rush back into town and see that house. So I tried calling on the train. I tried from the hotel. I checked e-mail … and … bingo! A reply: She was busy with closings, but, “Why don’t you just bid $250,000 on it over the phone?” I e-mailed back: But we haven’t seen it. And it’s listed at $150,000. No response. Do you mean bid $150,000? Nothing. Do you mean bid $150,000? Damn her. DO YOU MEAN BID $150,000?! The next day, the listing agent informed me the house had just gone under agreement.

The realtor says: Jill Rizen: “This makes me feel bad. It makes us sound as if we’re really inept. That’s not how it is.”

7. Look at houses your super recommends in Fishtown.

It was “hot.” And affordable. And not that far from Northern Liberties. So when our super, whom we were seeing daily now that our current landlord had put our rental apartment on the market (This place is great! Look at all this space! And this huge deck in the middle of Center City!), suggested we take a look in his ’hood, we thought he might just be onto something. And so we went, and wandered. And wondered: Are we in it? Is this it? What about over here? And down there? No. Okay, turn around.

We liked the idea of it, and loved the Victorians with oak moldings and built-in armoires. Maybe this is what we needed, as summer arrived and our anxiety rose like mercury: a fresh start in the new frontier. But that’s the thing about the frontier: the hardship. Where were the little boutiques? The BYOBs? Or even a simple coffee shop, for heaven’s sake? You’re not getting oak molding and a fireplace and renovated bathrooms for $200,000 without giving something up.

The realtor says: Steven Savitz: “Only buy in an up-and-coming neighborhood if you’re a pioneer at heart and the status quo of that neighborhood is something that you like. If the status quo isn’t something you like, then for sure you’re making a recipe for disaster. You have to like Fishtown, for example, the way it is now. And if you do, it will only get better, and you’ll get rich. Or it will be the same, and you’ll be happy.”

8. Take up a lot of one very decent realtor’s time looking at houses in Mount Airy. Bid on one. And (nearly) another. Then call him up and tell him you decided you don’t really like driving out there.

As my husband likes to remind me when I start feeling a little guilty, we did bid on one house with Victor, whom we’ve come to see as The One Truly Decent, Honest and Kind Realtor. It was a cute little Tudor on a cul-de-sac, with a great deck and nice windows. And the timing would have been perfect. We had T-minus-30 days to homelessness, they wanted 30 days before closing. And even though we bid high, and upped it when they asked for “best offer,” the sellers went with someone else. No explanation provided. Victor was mad about that, in a very supportive way, but he soon found us another good deal, with plenty-o’-character, and as we stood outside that white stone twin that hot spring day, me in my trench coat and silk scarf, Adam in his pressed shirt and khaki pants, I thought, Yes. This is it. No more stinky rolled-out-of-bed days for us. No more rent checks. No more late-night crazy-talk. We are — almost — ­homeowners.

But then, as we raced to work that day, spiraling down Lincoln Drive, then Kelly Drive, my knuckles white, my eyes fixed on the oncoming traffic … mere inches separating us from a head-on, Jaws-of-Life collision … it hit me: I hate driving out here. No, I don’t just hate it. I am terrified of it. And I don’t want to die this way.

But I couldn’t really leave that message on Victor’s answering machine (could I?), so I made my husband call and say we’d changed our minds and were going to buy something else in the city, thus ending our relationship with The One Truly Decent, Honest and Kind Realtor.

The realtor says: Steven Savitz: “There are people I can’t work with because I can’t fulfill their needs, and that doesn’t mean they’re bad or I’m bad, but it means we’re not right for each other.”

9. Panic.

Look at anything that comes on the market in your price range. Look at a twin with a dank upstairs apartment (single-burner stove, exposed light bulb) that someone has decorated with felt banners reading I HAVE BATHED IN THE BLOOD OF JESUS. Look at houses you already looked at — but don’t recognize by the address because it’s all becoming a blur. Be unable to talk about anything but real estate, even to new co-­workers who hardly know you. Question your ­socio-economic status. Beg your landlord for another month. Curse your landlord. Have a big argument about whether or not you should just keep renting.

The realtor says: Lee Greenwood: “There are interim options, like short-term rentals near the airport. Another option if you’re running out of time and want to get into this market is to adjust your sights. Frequently, in Swarthmore, where people want to move because of the schools, we’ll see someone choose something that may be smaller than what they’d originally wanted. That’s not the way to make money, of course, but it gets you into the community, and you can buy a different house there later. And things have been moving so quickly that it’s sometimes good to get into the community first.”

10. See a fixer-upper on the same street as the first (perfect) house you bid on. Tell your realtor: What, are you kidding? This one is more money, and it’s not renovated. Are you crazy? They should pay us to live there.  

Buy it.